Excellent Bach and Paganini in Whangarei, New Zealand

Bach and Paganini: Martin Riseley (violin), The Old Library Art Centre, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 25.6.2011 (PSe)

“Indisposed”. Now there’s a word that’s much used and abused in the music business – and, it seems, always in strict accordance with its dictionary definition. It’s used by those who “can’t”, through injury or illness, and abused by those who “won’t”, usually because they’ve “had a better offer”.

Some folk, either better informed or more cynical than the rest of us, would have us believe that the majority of solo performers occupy this latter camp. Call me naïve if you will, but I suspect that such downright shoddy behaviour is limited to only the most ruthlessly business-minded of the world’s high-flyers – or, perhaps more likely, those who are under the thumbs of the most ruthlessly business-minded agents.

Personally, if I found anyone pulling that stunt when I’d bought a ticket, they’d be permanently removed from my Christmas card list! I’m sure (I think) that most performers are honest folk, who do their best for those who pay good money to hear them, and for whom “indisposed” can only mean “can’t”.

“Can’t”, of course, has consequences. Whangarei Music Society had booked Martin Riseley (violin) and Diedre Irons (piano) to do a recital on Saturday 25 June. At the fabled eleventh hour, they received word that Diedre Irons was “indisposed”. The reason was that, just two days earlier, returning to the platform after the interval of their recital in Rotorua, Diedre missed her footing on some high steps, falling heavily.

She tried to continue but – bruised, shaken and feeling decidedly wobbly – she was unable to play another note. For a time it looked as though she’d broken her thumb, but I’m glad to say that it turned out to be “only” a severe strain, and recovery just a matter of time and care.

But – what of the show? Well, the show went on! It tested Martin’s mettle, but he kept his cool, and gallantly saved the day with a spontaneous performance of a couple of unaccompanied violin works hastily hauled off his back burner. However, the said mettle faced a test still sterner: a string of dates, amounting to over half of their recital tour, still stretched before him.

As an emergency substitute was out of the question, he had just two options – either he could cry “Indisposed!”, or he could somehow soldier on. Disdaining indisposition, in double-quick time he contrived a complete and coherent solo recital programme, by expanding an idea inherent in his spontaneous display.

Thus, instead of the much-anticipated programme of pieces for violin and piano by Schubert, Ravel, R. Strauss and Stephen Prock, we in Whangarei got something completely different – an evening devoted to solo violin works by Bach and Paganini! I’m certain I wasn’t the only one who thought this a bizarre juxtaposition. However, armed only with his violin and frequent references to a scrap of paper masquerading as his programme plan, Martin soon showed us the sense of it.

In a first half wrapping Bach around Paganini and in a second half enfolding Bach within Paganini, he illuminated a surprisingly close relationship between the great Cantor and the spectacular showman, two characters that, on the face of it, mix about as well as oil and water. It isn’t until someone sets them side-by-side like this that you appreciate the extent to which the shadow of the former informs the pyrotechnics of the latter.

The Bach items included three movements from the E major Partita, the E major Sonata with its huge, imposing Fugue, the Second Sonata‘s exquisite Andante, and a captivating movement from the G minor Sonata. Shunning the portentous, plodding style of “old school Bach”, but not explicitly espousing any of the “authentic” creeds, Martin was a veritable fountain of agility and expressiveness, putting the “bass notes” of Bach’s astonishing polyphony firmly in their proper place.

His implicit reasoning was simple: Bach wrote the way he did because that was the way music was written in his day. The fact that Bach was so much better at it than his contemporaries would have had no real bearing on his intentions. Hence, his quick music should be as vital, vibrant and even sparkling as anyone else’s. Equally, his dances should be light on their feet, music for someone in ballet shoes rather than size sixteen rubber boots, and his exquisite slow melodies should charm the mortal soul rather than commune with corpses.

Paganini was represented by selections from his 24 Caprices and the grandly-titled Introduction and Variations on “Nel cor più non mi sento” from Paisiello’s “La Molinara”, a rarity with curious origins. Paganini, ever the astute businessman, didn’t publish everything, but kept his most lucrative tricks for his own exclusive use, and this is one such.

We owe its preservation to Paganini’s friend Carl Guhr who, over the course of many performances, used his ears, brain and hands to capture what amounts to a “pirate recording”. Since Paganini constantly rang the changes, this could only be approximate, but nonetheless it paints a vivid picture of Paganini’s diabolical talent on the wing.

Two hundred years down the line, Paganini’s solo violin works, bristling with brilliant “special effects”, are still arguably the supreme challenge to our finest violinists. However, that’s also Paganini’s problem, since, as Martin said, “Nobody plays it like music” – and then, in a manner of speaking, went on to prove himself wrong!

True, there was apparently all the dazzle of flying fingers, teeming torrents of notes flashing like jewels under arc-lamps, every imaginable combination of arco, pizzicato, staccato, glissando, multiple-stopping, harmonics – and other acrobatics I daren’t try to name. Yet, firmly resisting any temptation to flamboyance, Martin “played it like music”.

He encouraged the still voice of real human feelings to shine its softer light through all the glitz – and that softer light illuminated a whole series of styles and techniques that had the word “Bach” running right through them. All right, so maybe the hurriedly-prepared Martin wasn’t absolutely note-perfect – but then, in music like this, who the hell is?

Paul Serotsky